Next April will see Pablo Hernandez hit his 35th birthday. Both he, and the legions of fans who march on together with Leeds United, will be hoping that he’ll be celebrating by helping the team return to the Premier League after 16 years outside the top flight.
It would certainly be a fitting milestone in a long and very successful career for Hernandez, as well as being an achievement that he has been instrumental in helping the club to reach.
From the moment that he arrived on loan from Rayo Vallecano in 2016, he has been arguably the best player in the team, a claim that’s lent more weight by the fact that he’s been named the club’s player of the year two years running despite stiff competition from team-mates Liam Cooper, Kalvin Phillips and Pontus Jansson. For many, including Marcelo Bielsa, he’s also considered to be one of the best players in the Championship, earning a place on last season’s PFA Championship Team of the Year alongside Cooper and Jansson.
First stop: Valencia
The road to Elland Road has been a long and successful one for Hernandez. Born near Valencia in 1985 he showed early talent and was soon adopted by the youth development programme where he thrived. He made his first-team debut in the final game of the 2005-06 season.
There followed a series of loans to teams including Cadiz and Onda and a sale to Getafe, from which Valencia bought him back for €1 million in 2008. This was when his career really took off as he soon became a first-team regular. Over the next four seasons he made 154 appearances for the club and scored 24 goals in his floating role as an attacking midfielder and occasional winger.
It was shortly after his return to Valencia when his international career began. His call up came as a replacement for the injured Andres Iniesta for the Spanish team competing in the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup in South Africa. He won the first of his four international caps when he came on as substitute for the injured David Villa in a match which ended as a 2-1 defeat for the host nation. He then went on to score his only international goal in a 5-1 victory over Austria in November 2009.
While still at Valencia he also played an important part in European competitions where his goal-scoring ability became more and more important. Perhaps the most high-profile of his goals came in a UEFA Champions League clash with Manchester United in December 2010 when he scored to secure a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford.
The move to Swansea
Throughout his time with Valencia, Hernandez had a running battle for selection with Joaquin and by 2012 it was a battle that he was starting to lose. So in August of that year he made the move to the Premier League with Swansea City for £5.5 million, making him one of the club’s most expensive signings ever.
He quickly established himself as a first-team regular at Swansea, making 71 appearances over the two seasons he was with the club and scoring five goals. He also helped Swansea to get their hands on some silverware, when played a pivotal role in the team’s 5-0 demolition of Bradford City in the 2013 League Cup Final.
Towards the latter days of his time with Swansea, Hernandez entered into talks with the Qatari club Al-Arabi and eventually signed to them for an undisclosed fee – although it’s thought to have been considerably less than the £5.5 million paid by Swansea. It wasn’t a particularly happy time for Hernandez at the club and loans to both Al-Nasr Dubai and the Spanish club Rayo Vallecano followed.
The move to Elland Road
It was in 2016 that he moved to the Yorkshire club on an initial six-month loan with an option to buy, negotiated by the then manager Garry Monk who had been in charge at Swansea when Hernandez had played there.
He impressed from the very first time that he turned out for Leeds United and by January 2017 he was rewarded with a six-month contract. After a couple of extensions which followed, the Spaniard is now contracted to play for the club until at least 2020. His current manager, Bielsa, has said in the past that he’s never seen a winger who can exert quite so much influence on a game at any level, let alone in the second tier of the English league.
He’s also much praised by the local press with the Yorkshire Evening Post dubbing him “the most creative player in the Championship” and citing his ability to make jinking runs around even the most determined defenders, as well as his ability to pick out a pass which unlocks a defence.
As to whether he’ll also be able to help Leeds succeed in getting promoted, the early signs, not to mention the soccer odds, are good. Leeds United are currently favourites to be promoted to the Premier League in May.
That said, it is tight at the top with other clubs like West Bromwich Albion, Fulham and even Hernandez’s old team Swansea also vying for the top spot. No-one is expecting it to be easy, but Leeds have come so close in previous seasons that there is a real feeling that momentum may well be on their side.
It’s also believed that there is a clause within Hernandez’s contract which ensures he is given a contract extension if the team are promoted.
And one thing’s for sure: if they do fall short again, it won’t be for the want of trying.